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Nebraska Legislature's Redistricting Committee debates how open meetings should be

Nebraska Legislature's Redistricting Committee debates how open meetings should be

Recording of an online press conference detailing data about Nebraska from the first release of data from the 2020 Census. The conference was conducted by the University of Nebraska at Omaha, featuring David Drozd, research coordinator, of the Center for Public Affairs Research, the lead agency of the Nebraska State Data Center Network.

LINCOLN — The Legislature’s Redistricting Committee got to work Monday on the process of redrawing state political district boundaries, and it wasn’t long before some rough edges began showing.

Signs of friction appeared as the group heard a report about the U.S. Census data and debated the guidelines they would follow in their process.

State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha broached one area of contention by asking how much of the committee work would take place behind closed doors and how much would be open to the public.

He was joined by Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, who argued that the committee debate about redrawing district lines should be done in open session. She said she would seek a vote on that idea at the committee’s next meeting. Legislative committees traditionally craft and vote on bills in executive sessions, which are open to the press but closed to other lawmakers, staff and the public.

“I just want people to see how the sausage is made,” she said. “I think every opportunity we have to be transparent, we should.”

But Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who chairs the committee, questioned how it would improve the process to have the public watch as lawmakers get into heated debate.

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha said he could go either way but warned that it would be problematic if lawmakers avoid discussing critical issues because they don’t want to do it in public. He said there will be people who meet out of the public eye to negotiate district lines.

The nine-member committee must propose new district boundaries for congressional, legislative and elected state boards. The often-contentious process is required every 10 years after the federal census to even out the district populations and preserve the “one person, one vote” principle.

That rebalancing has raised concerns about rural interests, given the loss of population in rural Nebraska and the gain in urban areas.

On Monday, Sen. Tom Briese of Albion questioned whether rural residents had been undercounted by the census. He cited reports that there was a lower response rate to the census in rural areas.

But Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln countered that urban areas have undercounts as well, pointing to reports that Latinos were less likely to respond out of fear of immigration consequences.

Benjamin Thompson, director of the Legislative Research Office, offered assurances about the data. He said the Census Bureau used a variety of methods to fill in the blanks for people who did not respond either online, by mail or in person to the census.

“The total number should be reasonably accurate,” he said.

Work on redistricting was delayed this year because the coronavirus pandemic slowed the 2020 national headcount. Nebraska and other states just received the official census numbers Aug. 12.

The Legislature has to complete its work by Sept. 30 so that counties, school districts and other local subdivisions have time to redraw their political districts and local election officials can make changes to voting precincts.

The committee is slated to meet again Thursday. In the meantime, lawmakers and their staff can work on redistricting proposals using the official legislative software and equipment.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-670-2402

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